For nearly a decade, Shlomo Bolts, 27, has been an activist for human rights and against war atrocities, as well as a proponent of Jewish-Arab dialogue. Born in New Jersey and raised in Miami, he attended Jewish day school. He became involved in Middle East issues at Columbia University, where he majored in political science and sociology. He earned a master’s degree at Cambridge University in England, where he studied the first Palestinian intifada and the ongoing violence in India’s contested Kashmir region.
Bolts works as a policy and advocacy officer at Syrian American Council, a lobbying group, where he produces policy papers, reports, op-eds and briefings.
What is your family history?
My great-grandmother was from Aleppo, Syria, and came to the U.S. at about the time of World War I. It was a very tumultuous time in the region since the Ottoman Empire was collapsing. My father’s side is European, partly from [what is now] Belarus in the city of Vitebsk. They left before Hitler got started [with the Final Solution] in the 1930s. They came here as refugees.
Would you describe your great-grandmother’s journey?
My great-grandmother was in Aleppo, as part of the Dweck family. There were a lot of Syrian Jews named Dweck. My family traveled all around. When my great-grandmother came here, she was in El Paso, Texas, for a while, and then they moved to Brooklyn for a while. They then went to Miami, where my grandmother grew up.
So it was a normal upbringing for you in Miami?
Yeah, Orthodox Jewish. I guess you could call me “frum from birth.” I basically followed the Orthodox customs for virtually my whole life, largely by choice.
Describe your time as a political activist at Columbia.
This is where I learned Arabic. I was involved in trying to bridge the divide between Jews and Arabs. At the time, I was working on issues like Darfur, as part of campaigns to end genocide. We did a big rally in Central Park.
What were you thinking while you were at Cambridge during the Arab Spring?
I was pushing for intervention. At one protest I was at, people held photo signs of the dictators with giant x’s on them. I was holding the sign with [Syrian President Bashir al] Assad on it. I felt like all of the dictators had to go.
I came back to Miami and I was thinking of going the think tank route. My first internship was at the International Institute of Strategic Studies.
By April 2012, there was a big massacre in Homs [by the Syrian government against armed rebels]. I had to do something for them.
So by then, your research was specifically on the Syrian conflict?
I remember one of my last conversations with my grandmother. She told me that Aleppo had been such a beautiful city. I remember how vigorously she said that. It was something I kept in the back of my mind.
In July 2012, I wanted to work more directly with the pro-democracy people, because the policy community wasn’t getting it. I wanted to amplify the pro-democracy groups. I worked with two groups: POMED [Project on Middle East Democracy] and Syrian Expatriates Organization. I talked about my research experience, and I explained that I did this Jewish-Arab dialogue work. I now work with Syrian American Council.
What about the perspective that if Assad’s government were to be toppled, he’d be replaced by a radical Islamic regime?
I don’t agree with this attitude which I know is prevalent among some in Israel [that]“if you let the dictators go, the extremists will take power.”
That’s not true?
It is true, but that’s a surface explanation. The full explanation is that the dictators are cultivating the extremists so that they force the West to keep them in power for fear of the [radicals]. The solution is to get the dictators out of power, and find a group’s leader willing to participate in the democratic process, even if he is crazy.
Is your goal now to continue sounding the alarm when it comes to the Syrian civil war?
Sounding the alarm is exactly it. The fact that we can ignore genocide is an idea that should have been disabused a long time ago. To the American Jewish community, I say it has everything to do with you. It’s not going to stop if we just bury our heads in the sand. This is a genocide and it’s being carried out by many anti-Israel militias from Iranian proxies, and on the other side are people who want freedom and live their own lives.